SF Signal Interviews Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer, known as “the dean of Canadian science fiction” by The Ottawa Citizen, is one of only seven writers in history to win all three of the science-fiction field’s top honors for best novel of the year: the Hugo Award (for his novel Hominids), the Nebula Award (The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Mindscan). Rob’s novels are top-ten national mainstream bestsellers in Canada. His novels include Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, Flashforward, Calculating God, the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids), Mindscan, and Rollback. His short fiction collections include Iterations, Relativity, and Identity Theft and Other Stories. Rob is also Editor of Robert J. Sawyer Books, the science-fiction imprint of Calgary’s Red Deer Press and blogs at http://sfwriter.com/blog.htm.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with Rob about his latest novel WWW: Wake, his writing, publishing, and the upcoming ABC television series, Flash Forward, which is based on his book…

Hi Robert. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Let’s get to it:

SF Signal: Tell us about your latest novel, Wake, including what themes it deals with.

Robert J. Sawyer: Wake is the first volume of a trilogy about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. It tells the story of Caitlin Decter, a 15 – year-old math wiz who has been blind since birth. She receives an implant that lets her see the real world – and also, due to a glitch, lets her see the structure of the Web when she’s downloading into the implant. She discovers a nascent consciousness lurking there – but it’s lost in a world of sensory deprivation. Just as Caitlin’s idol, Annie Sullivan, reached down into the darkness to pull up Helen Keller, so Caitlin tries to do the same with the newly born Webmind.

The second book – which I just finished, and which my editor at Ace says is “even better than the first” – is called Watch, and I’m just about to start writing Wonder, the final volume; together, Wake, Watch, and Wonder are the “WWW” trilogy.

Among the themes the books deal with are the nature of perception and how it shapes our view of reality; how much humans are in fact programmed by evolution, and whether humanity can overcome that programming; and what, if any, value consciousness has.

I’m also very interested in trying to find a new synthesis, a new approach to the question of what happens once something more intelligent than we are emerges here. Is there a way out of the standard science-fictional paradigm that has us subjugated or wiped out, as seen in The Matrix and The Terminator, and going all the way back to Colossus: The Forbin Project and before? Is there a compelling argument to be made for us being able to continue, with our essential humanity intact, once true AI is on the scene?

These are the hardest books I’ve ever written, but many commentators have said that Wake – which was serialized in Analog – is also the best thing I’ve ever written, and that’s very gratifying.

SFS: The majority of your novels are set in the near future. Why is that?

RJS: Actually, since 1997, a large number of haven’t even been set in the future: Frameshift, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids are all set in the present day (the year the novels came out). I’ve often said that SF isn’t about predicting the future, and I wanted to show that one could write novels that have all the traditional science-fictional virtues – transcendence, the sense of wonder, social comment via metaphor, and cutting-edge scientific extrapolation – without relying on the crutch of setting them in a future that obviously is made up.

Even my current trilogy – Wake, Watch, and Wonder-are set in the very near future; I don’t state it directly in the books, but it’s easy enough to determine from the text that they’re set in 2012, which is the year the final volume of the trilogy will be out in paperback.

But you’re right that I made a conscious decision to eschew the far future, as well as off-Earth settings. Early in my career, I did nothing but that: my first novel, Golden Fleece, was set aboard an interstellar ramscoop, and Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner were set on an alien world.

Now, I happen to think that Far-Seer and its two sequels are some of the best books I’ve ever written, and also among the most important: they’re a sharp criticism of the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on birth control, and a rumination on the conflict between science and religion. But they never found a large audience-although they are in print, 17 years after the first one came out-but they’re my least-well-selling books.

So, I set out to find a way to write books that were still hard-core science fiction but would also have out-of-genre appeal, and I guess I’ve succeeded. My later books have all done well not just with SF readers but also with people who don’t normally go into the SF section (which is about 95% of the people who do visit bookstores). I started the switch with my 1995 The Terminal Experiment, and the SF audience followed along: that book won the Nebula and got me my first Hugo nomination.

Later works did even better in catering to both audiences. One of my proudest achievements is that my Calculating God hit #1 on the bestsellers list published by Locus, which surveys science-fiction specialty stores, and also was a top-ten national mainstream bestseller in Canada, where I live. I’ve found I can do everything I want to do creatively on Earth in the near future or present day, and it’s worked very well at giving me a large audience both inside and outside the genre.

I was equally proud when my Hugo winner, Hominids, was chosen as the “One Book One Community” reading choice for the 500,000 people in Waterloo Region, Ontario. Not only was it unusual for a novel actually labeled as science fiction to be adopted for such a program, but Hominids had been serialized in Analog-and you can’t get any more hardcore hard-SF than that. If Hominids hadn’t been anchored in the here-and-now, it never would have had that out-of-category audience.

But these days, there’s also a particular challenge that I’m trying to meet: a number of my colleagues have gone so far as to say it’s impossible to write near future SF anymore, because things are changing so rapidly. Instead, they jump to the other side of the singularity and wield nanotechnology and virtual reality like magic; those may be fun books to write, but they’re as much fantasy as science fiction, in that there really is no road map for how you get from our here-and-now to the milieu of those stories. Science fiction is a genre in sales decline; by writing near-future accessible SF, I’m doing my part to fan the embers and keep it alive.

SFS: Many of your novels deal with social issues. For example, Calculating God tackles religion and Rollback deals with health care. Do you use science fiction specifically to talk about these issues, or does the story evolve first?

RJS: Absolutely the former: I’m an issues-oriented, thematically driven writer. My science-fictional idol is H.G. Wells, and the last thing he was interested in was Martians or time travel; rather, he wanted to write about the evils of British colonialism and the British class structure-and science fiction let him do that.

It’s no coincidence that my early exposure to science fiction was through the original Star Trek and the original Planet of the Apes, both of which were rich with social comment. I don’t think I give plot or characterization short shrift-one of the most common things people say in emails to me is that they’d never cried before when reading SF, but they have when reading my books-but I definitely think the reason science fiction matters is that it explores social issues. Certainly, for me as a reader, if all you can say in answer to the question, “What’s that book about?” is a plot synopsis, I’m not interested.

SFS: Which authors were the earliest influences on your decision to become a writer? Which modern day writers do you think are going to be the stars of tomorrow?

RJS: There’s no doubt I’m a science fiction writer today because of Alan E. Nourse. He’s not a well-remembered name-he’s probably best known for having sold the title Blade Runner to Ridley Scott, even though it was only the title Scott used in adapting Philip K. Dick. The first SF novel I ever read, around about 1972, was an old Lancer paperback of Nourse’s Trouble on Titan, a very good Heinlein-esque juvenile. And Nourse began the book-so, in fact, this is what I read first, before I’d read even the novel-with an introduction entitled “I’ve Never Been There,” all about the joys of being a science-fiction writer. Instead of the usual progression-discovering SF as a kid, having it finally dawn on me that real people actually write these books, and then eventually coming to the realization that I might someday be able to be one of those people, too-I literally knew I was going to do this from the very first page of the very first SF book I ever read.

After that, it was the SF I read in my teenage years-the 1970s-that really formed my approach to the genre. That was the era during which Fred Pohl was doing his absolute best work, including Gateway and Man Plus, and those books taught me that your main character didn’t in fact have to be a hero, or even likable-he just had to be realistic and have a compelling story. Arthur C. Clarke was also a huge influence; he taught me that you can be rational and yet metaphysical at the same time. And James White-the Irish writer known for the Sector General stories-taught me that SF doesn’t have to have antagonists, and can be pacifistic and optimistic without ever once being boring.

As for the stars of tomorrow, well, as an editor, I’ve published two novels now by Nick DiChario. He’s already been nominated for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards-that last for a book he did for me called A Small and Remarkable Life; he’s terrific. I’m also super-impressed by Hayden Trenholm, a new Canadian writer, who won Canada’s Aurora Award last year for best short story. His first novel, Defining Diana, from Canada’s Bundoran Press, was a terrific SF noir book, and it’s up for an Aurora this year, and I’m currently reading the sequel, Steel Whispers, in manuscript, and it’s even better.

SFS: You are very involved in the Canadian SF writing community. What are the major differences, if any, between Canadian science fiction and science fiction from other parts of the world?

RJS: I like to quip that American SF has happy endings, Canadian SF has sad endings, and British SF has no endings at all. There’s some truth in that: my fellow Canadian Terence M. Green and I both ran into editorial opposition at various points to what were viewed as insufficiently triumphant endings to our books, and Peter Watts, who lives here in Toronto, hasn’t found the American audience he deserves arguably because his fiction is so bleak.

One of the big differences between the Canadian and American SF communities is the larger percentage of us in Canada who get to do this full-time, and who went full-time at early ages. Besides myself, Julie E. Czerneda, Nalo Hopkinson, Spider Robinson, Karl Schroeder, Robert Charles Wilson, and a large number of fantasists are full-timers. The reason? Socialized medicine: we don’t have to be shackled to a nine-to-five to make sure we and our families have decent health care; that system is the single greatest thing Canada has ever done to support the arts, and it wasn’t even conceived of for that purpose. Jeanne Robinson-Spider’s wife, and Hugo winner in her own right-just went through surgery, and he publicly thanked Tommy Douglas, the architect of Canada’s health-care system. To which I said in my own blog, “Amen to that, brother.”

Is there anything that unites Canadian science fiction? We’re a disparate lot, but if I had to answer that question with a single word, I’d say “consciousness.” Most of my recent work has been about the nature of consciousness-about why there’s something that it’s like to be you-and a lot of Matthew Hughes’s work, Karl Schroeder’s work, Peter Watts’s work, and Robert Charles Wilson’s work focuses on that, too. To me, it’s the most interesting area in science right now.

SFS: Part of being a successful writer is marketing, something with which you seem to be very involved. How much of that responsibility lies with the publisher and how much with the author?

RJS: “Responsibility” is an interesting word. A publisher has an obligation to try to market the works it has contracted to produce; an author actually has no such obligation-contractually or otherwise. Many of my friends and colleagues do next to no promotion of their own, and, actually, I do very little myself-but what I do is effective. But the bottom line is simply this: if your books succeed or fail matters a great deal to you, but it only matters a little bit to your publisher. They’ve got lots of books. A first novel in the SF field might get you a $5,000 advance-and no editor or publicist is going to lose his or her job if that book fails in the marketplace. But your career will be over if it does-so of course it behooves you to do what you can to market your books.

That said, indiscriminate marketing is worse than useless; it can actually hurt you. The hardest lesson for new authors to learn is that their books are not for everybody. We have a world in which most people don’t know the difference between “not to my taste” and “isn’t any good,” and if you twist the arm of somebody who doesn’t like the sort of books you write into buying your book, you’re going to end up with a one-star review on Amazon.com.

That’s why I’m so open about what my books are: social comment, thematically driven, politically liberal, big-ideas hard-SF with lots of pop-culture references and more than a few bad puns. If you like that sort of thing, I want to be on your radar. If you don’t, then I want you to know up front that my books aren’t for you-that’s doing us both a favor.

SFS: As a publisher yourself of Robert J. Sawyer Books, what do you see as the main obstacles to getting fiction in front of readers and how can those obstacles be overcome?

RJS: Actually-and this is a very important distinction-I’m not the publisher; I’m the editor. The publisher puts up the money-in my case, a very nice lady named Sharon Fitzhenry, who owns the mid-size Canadian publishing company Fitzhenry & Whiteside. She’s invested well into six figures into my line of books, and although they aren’t much on the radar south of the border, they are everywhere in Canadian bookstores, including the airport stores, and I’m publishing the top Canadian SF writers, including Phyllis Gotlieb, Terence M. Green, Matthew Hughes, and Karl Schroeder.

The biggest problem is distribution. Despite the presence of Amazon.com and other online retailers, the vast majority of books still sell in bookstores and are impulse buys-the customer goes into the store with no particular book in mind, browses, and chooses something. And if your book isn’t on the shelf, they can’t choose it. As I say, my line has great distribution in Canada-Fitzhenry & Whiteside used to be the Canadian distributor for Ace Science Fiction, so they know what they’re doing.

Online promotion can help with publicity, but only so much. Most people don’t read books on computers-especially not on the computer they surf the Web with-and so online publicity is basically saying, “Hey, why not give up this full-color, infinite content, multitasking, sensory-rich experience you’re having right now, and go shut everything out and read a book?”

SFS: Are ebooks the wave of the future? What’s your take on Digital Rights Management?

RJS: I’m a huge ebook evangelist; I love them, and do almost all my reading electronically. I travel a great deal-in aggregate, three months or more of each year on the road-and having hundreds of books in my pocket is enormously handy. Also, I like type bigger than most printed books provide, and with ebooks, every title is automatically a large-print edition. And although I have a big vocabulary, I love the simplicity of looking up words in a dictionary in most ebook readers (the lack of that functionality is a showstopper for me on the Sony Reader).

Digital Rights Management is a complex issue. In many ways books from major companies are more sensitive to piracy than are computer software or music. One can argue that a musician releases music to build up interest in people coming to his or her concerts, were tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars can be made. And one can argue that it’s actually in Microsoft’s best interest to have most of the world using Word and Excel and Windows-because the real money is in corporate site licenses, and few companies are going to standardize on software that isn’t in common use, because that severely restricts their hiring pool, and puts the burden of training costs on them.

But a typical hardcover in the science fiction field might have 2,000 copies printed these days-and that’s very close to the minimum at which such books cease to be profitable; if pirated electronic editions make real inroads into books, they may in fact no longer be viable to publish at all-hence the publisher’s desire for DRM.

Remember, the average iPod has just $40 worth of paid-for electronic music on it-people trot out the figure that iTunes has sold a billion dollars worth of songs as if that’s a lot, but it isn’t; Apple has done a great job of making the sale of music-playing hardware profitable. But, still, as I said, there are other traditional revenue streams for musicians. But there aren’t for authors: you’re lucky to get a hundred dollars for a public reading or school visit, and if you sell 20 books at a public event-earning you less than $20 in royalties somewhere down the road if they’re mass-market paperbacks-you’ve done well. Digital Rights Management on books is an attempt to preserve the one and only revenue stream most authors, and publishers, have.

That said, there’s good DRM and bad DRM. I generally refuse to buy secure Mobipocket books, for instance, because their DRM scheme limits you to using your books on just four devices, and if you want to change which devices, you need their permission-which means accessing your library in the future depends on them staying in business.

But eReader, which was recently bought by Fictionwise, and, in turn, bought by Barnes and Noble, has a system of DRM that I have a hard time finding fault with. To open an ebook, all you have to do is type in the credit-card number you used to buy it-and you can basically share the book with anyone you’re comfortable giving that number to. And once you’ve opened any book that was bought with that credit card on a device, all books bought with that card will open-in other words, you only enter the number a single time. I’ve got more than a dozen computers and other devices that can read ebooks, and my entire eReader library is on all of them; the inconvenience to me of this DRM system is negligible, and the protection it affords authors and publishers against piracy is sufficient.

It’s become fashionable for people to say they have no obligation to protect old business models; that is, if they can find a way to watch TV without those pesky commercials and without paying for the DVD or the download, then yay for them, and too-bad-so-sad for the producers of the content. But, in fact, high quality content is expensive to produce, and, if we learned anything from the financial crash of 2008, it is in fact that me-first, as-long-as-I-get-mine thinking is dangerous for everybody; we all have an obligation to nurture and protect the economic systems that make possible the high standard of living we enjoy.

SFS: Your novel Flash Forward is being adapted into a television series. How are you involved in the production? How closely does the show match the themes and ideas expressed in the book?

RJS: ABC just wrapped filming on the pilot for Flash Forward. David S. Goyer-who wrote Batman Begins-directed it, and he and Hugo Award-winner Brannon Braga wrote the pilot script. It could not be in better hands, and I’ve been thrilled with everything they’ve done.

I was consultant on the pilot, and will be consultant on every episode of the series, and am slated to write one of the first-season episodes myself.

The series totally is about the “themes and ideas express in the book.” It’s my Flash Forward, without question. Yes, David and Brannon have made a lot of changes-and we had a great meeting in L.A. at which they outlined what they wanted to do; they really seemed to care about whether I was happy with the direction they wanted to take. And I was and am.

I just came back from three days on the set, and it was magnificent. The cast-Jack Davenport, Joseph Fiennes, Zachary Knighton, Courtney B. Vance, Sonya Walger, and others-are magnificent, and Joe, Zach, and Sonya had all read my book, and really were fully engaged with what it tries to do in terms of ideas and philosophy. The entire experience has been amazingly positive.

SFS: Thanks for your time, Robert. Is there anything else you’d like to add or mention?

RJS: Just a reminder that WAKE comes out April 7 in the United States, and April 14 in Canada, and that sample chapters and a book-club discussion guide can be found at http://sfwriter.com/exw1.htm.

9 thoughts on “SF Signal Interviews Robert J. Sawyer”

  1. Good interview, John!

    Sawyer seems to get a lot of bad press and flack for his one Hugo win (which came duringa Worldcon that was in Canada, as it so happens). I don’t think this is fair (he does have a Nebula nomination, too, after all) but there it is. I recall a thread on Scalzi’s blog where someone tried to hijack the thread into a screed against Sawyer’s win as being a case of biased voting.

    I’ve only tried one of his novels and didn’t care for it overmuch (Starplex), but I suspect that might be a consequence of the novel I tried, rather than the overall quality and virtues of the author.



  2. Paul, just for the record, I have had eleven Hugo nominations — at Worldcons in the United States, Australia, Canada, and the UK:

    Eight-time finalist, Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year (for The Terminal Experiment [1996], Starplex [1997], Frameshift [1998], Factoring Humanity  [1999], Calculating God [2001], Hominids [2003], Humans [2004], and Rollback [2008]).

    Finalist, Hugo Award for Best Novella of the Year (for “Identity Theft” 2006]).

    Two-time finalist, Hugo Award for Best Short Story of the Year (for “The Hand You’re Dealt” [1998] and “Shed Skin” [2005]).

    I’ve also had more than just a Nebula nomination, Paul; I won the Nebula for Best Novel of the Year in 1996 for The Terminal Experiment; was nominated again the following year for Starpex, and again in 2006 for best novella (for “Identity Theft”).

    Locus Guide to Science Fiction Awards:

    All best wishes.

  3. Great interview,  Robert makes many interesting points.  His thoughts on book marketing and distribution make for some interesting reading.  I’ve been mulling over whether to pick up one of Robert’s books for a while now – and I think the interview has just convinced me to do so.  Congrats Robert, you just made another sale!  I wish you the best of success with “Wake.”

  4. Great interview!  I am a big fan of Mr. Sawyer’s works and so are my wife & daughter.  I am glad to know that Wake is out and I’ll be looking for it the next time I visit the book store.

  5. Great interview. I’ve been enjoying Sawyer via Analog for years, going back to Hobson’s Choice (novelized as The Terminal Experiment). I enjoyed Wake quite a bit in its serialized form, and am looking forward to the other two Ws. Thanks!

  6. “…one of the most common things people say in emails to me is that they’d never cried before when reading SF, but they have when reading my books…”

    I’m certainly in that camp: Two of my favorite SF books are Calculating God and Simmons’ Hyperion, both of which brought forth my emotional side, tears and all. IMO, it’s rare that a writer in any genre, let alone SF, can elicit that kind of emotion from their readers. Great stuff.

    Thanks for sharing this interview. I’m a big fan and I’m überpumped about WWW|Wake:)

  7. I’m looking forward to April 23rd whey Robert J Sawyer comes back to Edmonton for a reading. He’s a great speaker and passionate about what he talks about.

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